In Conversation: The Storyteller and the Advocate

How can we use storytelling to create change?

Background: On August 26, Rebecca posted a feminist statement on Facebook for Women’s Equality Day. A male colleague responded with “Stop feeling too terribly sorry for yourself.” What followed was an attempt by Rebecca and several friends to inform him about the plight of women and girls around the world. He belittled everything we wrote, including a personal story that Melissa shared about her son. Rebecca and Melissa decided to channel their frustration into an educational blog post about the value of storytelling and advocacy in raising awareness of critical issues.

Rebecca: In advocacy, we try to bring more attention to issues and challenges that people face around the world. Since those without power often go unheard, storytelling is a powerful tool to “give voice to the voiceless”.

In this recent “learning moment” coming out of the Facebook exchange, I appreciated that you shared such a personal story about your son — it was brave to do that in a public forum. We could already sense the respondent was being hostile and belligerent regardless of our efforts to educate and build awareness. Given that, did you hesitate to share your story? How did his response make you feel?

Melissa: I did hesitate to share my story because we were discussing women’s issues. That’s a topic many people like to dismiss or belittle. It can be exhausting to share a struggle and then have someone tell you that struggle is either: 1. Invalid or 2. Not real. Our dissenter’s response actually made me laugh because, in many ways, it proved my point. I shared an issue, he tried to tell me it’s a non-issue, and, it’s like, okay, that’s why this is an issue!

I wonder if you face this a lot in your work to advocate for women and children: a lack of empathy when trying to convince others that a problem they might not experience themselves is still real and immediate?

Rebecca: Yes, definitely. Statistics can be overwhelming and mind-boggling; it is the individual stories that capture our attention and motivate us to take action. My favorite journalist, Nicholas Kristof, says you need a riveting story with a protagonist to get people interested in an issue (read more here). We see this all the time in politics (think Joe the Plumber) and fundraising appeals (like World Vision’s child sponsorship program).

Melissa: Obviously, as a writer, I believe that individual stories can be extremely powerful. Along with the other examples you gave, I’m also thinking of Humans of NY, a blog whose scope has entirely shifted from a photography site, to a powerful fundraising tool that uses personal stories to raise awareness about many critical issues.

What unique ways have you delivered story to raise awareness about important social issues?

Rebecca: It’s vitally important to think about what resonates with your target audience. Here are some clever examples:

· To get American women interested in the brutal gender-based violence that’s been occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo for decades, consider the power of a celebrity’s voice: Ben Affleck recently told his story to Glamour… and their readership of almost eleven million!

· Diarrhea is far from a “sexy” issue to work on, but did you know it’s one of the leading killers of children under five around the globe? Colleagues at DefeatDD just released a brilliant short film, Superheroes vs. Villains, that raises awareness of the causes and solutions.

· How can you get millennials, often without deep pockets, to take action against extreme poverty? My colleagues at Global Citizen motivate them to take concrete steps, primarily using social media and petitions geared towards elected officials and Heads of State. Free concerts with Rihanna are also a plus!

· In a strategic shift for the abortion rights movement, Planned Parenthood has been encouraging women to share their personal stories and break taboos. More than 200 bravely came forward in public amicus briefs filed earlier this year in support of Whole Women’s Health.

Melissa, you write for young people — such an impressionable age. Are we seeing authors using their work to raise awareness of community and global issues? Do publishers see it as advantageous? What are the barriers?

Melissa: Yes, authors absolutely use literature to raise awareness of community and global issues for young people. My forthcoming novel, for example, is a very human story about child homelessness, which is a crisis in this country. Award-winning author Patricia McCormick has written, with much acclaim, about sexual slavery in India and Nepal in her novel SOLD.

I recently read a powerful novel by Kate Messner called THE SEVENTH WISH, which gently and skillfully explores the growing heroine epidemic in the United States and the devastating affect it has on one young girl and her family.

I could list many, many more.

Many kids are living the difficult lives of the children depicted in these novels. Seeing themselves reflected in a book can give them hope and make them feel less alone. Still, writing and publishing these kinds of stories doesn’t come without risk. Parents and teachers want to protect kids. They wrongly assume children can’t handle difficult material. Sometimes, these books are censored or experience opposition in certain communities.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience working with Sesame Street’s Raya, and the challenges you faced communicating an issue to kids specifically?

Rebecca: Raya is a new Muppet designed to communicate directly with hundreds of millions of children and their caregivers in developing countries about handwashing and other healthy hygiene behaviors. She was created to help reduce preventable illness and death among children.

I helped think through the partnerships needed to get Raya in front of the right audiences. For instance, how do you get to the world’s poorest kids in homes without TVs? You work with schools, radio stations, and the non-profit partners who are active on the ground. Mount a TV on a pushcart, wheel it into a slum, and the children will come.

For more information about storytelling and advocacy check out these organizations:

The Well Told Story Project

Stories of Change

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Melissa Sarno and Rebecca Fishman have been friends since college. Melissa is a children’s writer and editor; learn more about her at Rebecca is an advocate focused on women’s and children’s health and wellness; learn more at